San Geronimo de Taos -- Spanish Colonial Missions of the Southwest Travel Itinerary

New church, built in 1850 after the area became part of the U.S. Photo by Karol M. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

San Geronimo de Taos
Taos Pueblo, New Mexico

Coordinates: 36.438169, -105.547392
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Spanish Colonial Missions of the Southwest Travel Itinerary

San Geronimo de Taos
Taos Pueblo is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a National Historic Landmark.

Photo by wfeiden. Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons.

Taos Pueblo is situated in the Taos Valley at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, an hour and half northwest of Santa Fe. The multi-storied adobe pueblo, which rises on both sides of Rio Pueblo de Taos, seems to embody the tenacity of the Puebloan people in successfully adapting to the centuries of change in their natural and cultural landscape. Continuously occupied for over 1000 years Taos Pueblo is the only living Native American pueblo that is both a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a National Historic Landmark. The mission churches are just one of the many historical and cultural features that make Taos Pueblo a World Heritage Site and a National Historic Landmark. The ruin of Mission San Geronimo and the rebuilt church are physical reminders of the turbulent history of the pueblo and the resilience of the Taos people.
Pueblo of Taos

In the Taos Valley, Taos Pueblo is the final occupation site of Tiwa-speaking Puebloan Indians. Various Ancestral Puebloan tribes are believed to have moved into the area around this time, sticking close to the life-sustaining Rio Grande River tributaries around the present-day border between Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico. The pueblo includes multi-storied buildings, ascending to four or five stories clustered into two groups and separated by the river which flows through the village. Archeological remains within the Taos Valley date its earliest known human occupation to around 900 AD. The original pueblo site is directly east of where the adobes stand today. Likely constructed around 1325 AD the first Taos Pueblo is now a ruin and sacred site referred to as "Cornfield Taos." The limited archeological excavation at Cornfield Taos provided evidence that the modern pueblo relocated slightly to the west to its current location, around 1400 AD –though at present it is not clear why. Spanish explorers visited Taos in 1540 when a detachment from Coronado's Expedition explored the area. Through time Taos Pueblo became an important trade hub, hosting a trade fair each fall after the agricultural harvest. Rescates were held at Taos to rescue, by way of trade, Spanish women and children who had been taken as slaves by Plains tribes. Like Pecos Pueblo, Taos became an important connection between the Pueblo populations along the Rio Grande and Plains Tribes as well as target for raids.
Ruins of the old mission that was bombarded by cannons.
Ruins of the old mission that was bombarded by cannons.

Photo by Elisa.rolle. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

San Geronimo de Taos

Spanish missions were religious and economic institutions constructed to convert and instruct native peoples in Spanish religion and culture. While part of larger Spanish colonial strategies, missions themselves are often best understood in the context of the communities they were built to serve. The history of the mission at Taos Pueblo is closely related to the historical events and conflicts that occurred in the pueblo. Taos Pueblo received its first Catholic Franciscan priest in 1598, when Juan de Onate, after establishing a Spanish settlement at San Gabriel, assigned Fray Francisco de Zamora as missionary to the Taos area. In 1627, Fray Benavides reported that the church was under construction, but with difficulty due to the non-cooperation of the Taos Indians. In 1647, the tribe sent the Inquisition in Mexico an official complaint of the immorality of the priest assigned to pueblo. In 1640, Fray Miranda and several other Spaniards were killed by the Indians at Taos, the church was destroyed, and the people left the pueblo. They returned under the persuasion of Governor Lopez de Mendizabal around 1660 and reluctantly accepted another priest. The church was slowly rebuilt, impeded by local resistance, and the situation continued to deteriorate as tribute continued to be collected and traditional religious practices were suppressed.
In 1680, the religious leader Popé took residence in Taos and from there planned and launched a coordinated uprising throughout northern New Mexico against the Spanish, which became known as the Pueblo Revolt. The revolt drove the Spanish out of the region for 10 years until the Reconquista in 1692 led by Don Diego de Vargas. Taos did not submit until 1695 but then rebelled the next year before finally yielding. In 1696 Vargas found the mission in a ruined state and being used as a stable. He reportedly destroyed it as it could not be rebuilt. The priests were still wary of the region and did not return to the pueblo immediately after Vargas's campaign. Later in 1706 the Franciscans returned and Fray Juan Álvarez reportedly began rebuilding the church. An adobe church was finished in 1726 and stood until 1846.

The third church was made of adobe and had a square bell tower, and was located on the outside of the two major pueblo compounds on either side of the river. The mission became the center of another uprising in 1846 as Mexicans and Indians resisted the American takeover of the territory during the Mexican-American War, killing the new American governor Charles Bent and marching on Santa Fe. Government troops and volunteers marched on Taos and attacked the Mexicans and Indians dissidents who had taken refuge in the San Geronimo church. The church, with walls 3-7 ft thick, became a formidable stronghold. The first day the American cannon balls lodged themselves in the thick adobe with little effect. Seeing that bombardment was not successful, the next day forces led by Colonel Price resorted to setting the roof on fire and storming the building. The American forces took the town and two years later the annexation of New Mexico was formalized by the Treaty of Guadalupe in 1848. The cannon ball riddled mission church was left to ruin and a new church was built in 1850.
San Geronimo de Taos
The 1850 church is still a part of the community today.

Photo by Robert Wilson. Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons.

What you can see today

The ruins of the church of San Geronimo destroyed in 1846 can still be seen today to the northwest of the two main pueblo blocks. The outline of the nave and the square bell tower are still visible and the former mission walls serve to enclose the cemetery. Many generations of both Spanish and American Indian peoples lie buried around and within its walls. The newest incarnation of the church is located within the adobe walls of the original pueblo. The church's main façade has been altered over the decades by the addition of flanking bell towers and various aesthetic changes.

Despite these alterations the church remains a beautiful example of northern New Mexican architecture. Its presence and continual use alongside ceremonial kivas mark the continuation of traditional practices and the creation of new syncretic ones. Today the majority of the Taos people identify as Catholics while still recognizing strong ties to their American Indian cultural traditions. In addition to the adobe buildings several stories high, other notable features of the pueblo include several round kivas (religious and ceremonial spaces), the surrounding defensive wall, the ruins of Cornfield Taos, large unexcavated trash middens, and a ceremonial racetrack. The pueblo is generally open to visitors daily except when tribal rituals require closing the Pueblo. From late winter to early spring, the pueblo closes for about ten weeks.

Plan Your Visit

Taos Pueblo is a National Historic Landmark and a World Heritage Site located at 120 Veterans Highway in Taos, NM. Click here for Taos Pueblo’s National Historic Landmark file: text and photos. The Pueblo, which is owned and administered by the Taos Tribal Council, is open to visitors daily from 8:00am to 4:30pm except during times that tribal rituals require its closing. For more information, visit the Taos Pueblo website or call Taos Pueblo Tourism at 575-758-1028 before visiting to confirm open hours.
Taos Pueblo has been documented by the National Park Service's Historic American Buildings Survey as have the ruins of the original San Geronimo Church. Taos Pueblo is also featured in the National Park Service American Southwest Travel Itinerary and in the American Latino Heritage Travel Itinerary.

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